Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A very hard spring for birds

Black-and-white Warbler

This year’s exceptionally cold spring is exacting a toll on many birds. Warblers, flycatchers, and other insectivores that winter in the tropics time their return for when trees should be leafing out, fueling their migration on the caterpillars that emerge right then. Migrants of species that normally would have passed through northern Wisconsin and Minnesota weeks ago are still lingering well south of here, and many migrants that passed through at the normal time have died or are still in big trouble.

American Redstart

This year’s late leaf-out meant there was no food for many migrants that arrived at the usual time. On May 19, Duluth experienced a huge “fallout” as migrants flooded through Park Point exactly on time—if this were a normal year. I was out of town, but read reports of the amazing spectacle via the Minnesota birding listserv.

  Least Flycatcher

 On May 22, Karl Bardon, one of Minnesota’s finest birders, posted on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union listserv:
The fallout of warblers, which occurred on Sunday, May 19th, continued for four straight days! I have never known this to happen, but the strong Northeast winds, rain, and fog, which grounded the birds on the 19th, continued until Wednesday afternoon, giving the birds no option to leave. Even more amazing was that all these hundreds of warblers fed mostly on the ground, giving unparalleled views. Of the 25 species I saw the last four days, all of them were seen at close range within just a few feet. I had numerous warblers try to land on my tripod while taking photos and a Black-and-white Warbler even landed on our legs! On Tuesday May 21st I counted all warblers seen in a 3 mile stretch of Park Point and had a state high count of 452 Palm Warblers, with smaller numbers (nothing record breaking) of 22 other species, including 3 Connecticuts.
Sadly, these birds arrived exhausted and hungry. In their desperate condition, many of them resorted to picking through debris along the shoreline of Lake Superior or trying to find food in other inappropriate places, as Karl noted. And some succumbed to hypothermia and starvation.
Had the cold weather been part of a brief weather pattern, those birds that made it through the first night or two would have been able to move on once it was over, but the cold, wet weather didn’t let up. I arrived two days after the big fall-out to beaches still teeming with hungry warblers. I’ve never had so many opportunities for close-up warbler photography, but there was no pleasure in snapping pictures of such cold, wet creatures.

Blackburnian Warbler

I found one Black-and-white Warbler that had apparently dropped dead from a pine tree on Park Point. Merlins, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Cooper’s Hawks time their own migration to coincide with songbird migration, so many weakened birds were eaten.

Many songbirds, of course, did survive the harsh migration and have already made it to their breeding territories, and more are still arriving, but I suspect our north woods will not resound with as much bird song as usual this year. Right now, as the cold continues, finding food is a far more urgent matter than establishing a territory. And if Neotropical migrants are in shorter supply, the ones that do make it back won’t have to work as hard to defend territories, so there won’t be as great a need to sing often. Oddly enough, the robins in my neighborhood are not singing much at all this year, though they have a much easier time finding food than warblers.

Magnolia Warbler

We can never blame any particular weather event, or any individual seasonal weather pattern, on climate change, but ironically, this freakishly cold spring is consistent with predictions for a steadily warming planet. Insurance companies are being squeezed by the huge upsurge in weather-related claims, but overall, people seem to feel either complacent or impotent to do anything about how much carbon we continue to squander. Some people have told me they’re just not going to worry about this sort of thing anymore because there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. But in the 70s, we got the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts passed, lowered the speed limit, started the EPA, and set emissions and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles all within a few short years during a conservative Republican administration not by being apathetic or feeling helpless but by being certain that we COULD effect change. That kind of optimistic empowerment is the only way we're going to get back on track now. Every distressed warbler I see reaffirms my commitment to protect these plucky little wanderers and the world we share.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A "retched" solution to a conservation conundrum

Steller's Jay
Steller's Jay
One of my more vivid memories from college was learning how monarch butterflies protect themselves from predation. Their diet is high on the bitter-tasting toxins in milkweed. The moment a bird bites into a monarch, it is repulsed by the bitter taste, and if it actually swallows a monarch, the toxins quickly induce vomiting.

 Birds are intelligent creatures that learn from experiences, and link that horrible reaction to the bright orange and black colors of a monarch, so if a bird does eat one, it never does it again. Another butterfly, the viceroy, is safe from predation because it looks so very much like a monarch, even though viceroys aren’t toxic or bitter tasting at all.

 The classic textbook example that made such a profound impression on me involved an experiment on Blue Jays, and two black-and-white photos of a Blue jay eating a monarch and then vomiting left a vivid impression.

That memory instantly came to mind as I was reading an article about a new approach to saving the endangered Marbled Murrelet, a plump seabird little bigger than a robin who nests in old-growth coniferous forests.

Marbled Murrelet
Marbled Murrelet

The species declined by more than 90 percent since the 1800s, due to over-logging in its nesting areas, over-fishing in its feeding waters, and pollution. Populations are more robust in the northwest, but those nesting in California’s redwood forests are in dire straits. Those forests now get some protection, but the murrelets continue to disappear. Researchers discovered an important contributing cause: egg predation. Marbled Murrelets lay only a single egg per year on a mossy flat branch of a giant redwood, and the worst predation comes from a handsome and intelligent little culprit, Steller’s Jay. Once a jay develops a search pattern for murrelet nests, it becomes a repeat customer, and Steller’s Jay longevity, combined with their intelligence, means that they grow ever more effective, year after year, at finding nests.

Identifying the problem is essential for solving it. Researchers clearly couldn’t get rid of the Steller’s Jays—if they did remove them from one area, others would move in, and it seemed like an unfortunate solution in every way, especially because Steller’s Jays have always shared habitat with Marbled Murrelets. But fortunately, those scientists working on the problem, perhaps remembering those Blue Jay vomiting experiments, came up with a scathingly brilliant idea.  They are training the jays to avoid eggs patterned like Marbled Murrelet eggs by setting out small chicken eggs dyed blue-green and speckled with brown paint, that had been laced with carbachol. Moments after piercing one of these eggs to eat the contents, a jay vomits. And voila—that jay is done with Marbled Murrelet eggs forever. It’s obviously impossible to train every Steller’s Jay to avoid these eggs, but in 2010 and 2011, after researchers zip-tied hundreds of these fake eggs on redwood branches in several California parks, egg-snatching dropped by from 37 percent to more than 70 percent.  Jays are territorial and many remain on their territories for a decade or more, so this learned behavior is likely to reap long-term benefits to the Marbled Murrelets. Who would have guessed that saving a tiny sea-faring bird would involve vomiting jays? 

Conservation Big Year Update from May 13

Piping Plover

For three and a half weeks of the past month, I was away from home, missing much of our late wintry weather and our wonderful spring migration as I birded in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Delaware. And I spent much of January moseying down to Florida. Except while attending or leading field trips connected with birding festivals, most of this birding has been done at my usual pokey speed. Much as I love to find new birds, I even more love enjoying the birds where I happen to be, so throughout my adventures, I’ve spent as much time watching and photographing common birds as rarer ones.

European Starling

In February and April, I went on Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union-sponsored week-long trips, one to Texas and one to Colorado, led by Minnesota’s premier birder, Kim Eckert.  Kim’s trips were thrillingly high-powered. We started each day birding before breakfast and continued until dark—by the end of each nine-day adventure, I was exhausted but joyful. 

Crimson-collared Grosbeak

In Texas, I got one lifer—a Crimson-collared Grosbeak, a northeastern Mexican species that occasionally wanders into the Rio Grande Valley. I’m focusing primarily on birds of conservation concern here in the Lower-48, and the Crimson-collared Grosbeak is too common to be of concern—its rarity is entirely due to its being a vagrant. But a lifer is a lifer, and I was thrilled.

Clay-colored Thrush

In Texas, I also saw two species that were on my world life list, because I’d seen them in the tropics, but which I’d never before seen in the US—the Clay-colored Thrush and Aplomado Falcon. The thrush is shaped like an American Robin, but is solid brown. People often wonder why such a drab bird was chosen the national bird of Costa Rica when they have such brilliantly colored toucans, hummingbirds, trogons, and quetzals, but it’s the homey little thrush who breaks out in its robin-like song as soon as it’s time for farmers to start planting. Clay-colored Thrushes are abundant in the tropics, and appear to be expanding their range northward, so promise to become increasingly common birds in Texas. 

Aplomado Falcon

The Aplomado Falcon is a pretty bird of prey, the size of a small male Peregrine but weighing just half as much. It used to be a regular breeding bird in south Texas and New Mexico as well as much of Mexico, but it disappeared from the US and large swaths of Mexico due to a lethal combination of pesticides and habitat loss. The species has been reintroduced to Texas, where it’s now breeding successfully without intervention, and more recently to New Mexico. Sadly, it’s classified as part of an experimental reintroduced population and so does not get protection under the Endangered Species Act, and there is no legal mandate to restore or preserve its habitat. That makes the Aplomado Falcon truly a species of conservation concern.

Gunnison Sage-Grouse

In Colorado I added two lifers, one big and one small—the critically endangered Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and the Black Rosy-Finch—a mountaintop bird that in winter sometimes works its way down a bit to visit feeders.
Black Rosy-Finch

And on a field trip associated with the Red Slough Birding Convention in Idabel, Oklahoma, I saw another bird I’d seen for only two seconds before, in Guatemala—Swainson’s Warbler. We kept to a moseying pace on that field trip to the Little River National Wildlife Refuge, so got to enjoy that secretive little bird for many minutes. I got some good photos and even made a good sound recording with my cell phone!
Swainson's Warbler

The Bird Savorer

Black-capped Chickadee

When I started birding in 1975, I thought of myself as a bird watcher, but quickly got the sense that people who took birds very seriously, trying to amass long lists and being careful about identification and observant about behaviors, called themselves birders. I'm sort of a laid-back person, but I took my birding very seriously from the start, so right away that first year, I started calling myself a birder.

From the very start, I couldn't help but notice that a few people who called themselves birders were high on the arrogance spectrum, yet some of the very most serious, high-level birders were very approachable and helpful. So for me, the term birder never seemed to mean someone who was arrogant or unwilling to help beginners. I always did associate the term birder with people who keep serious records of the birds they see, but not necessarily in life list form. One of my friends who is extraordinarily skilled and has birded all over the world keeps track of the birds she sees on each trip, but has never put it all together into a life list. So even in the area of listing, there are no single criteria to separate birders from bird watchers. Now there's a certain backlash against the competitive and acquisitive elements of the sport of birding, such that more and more people serious about finding and studying birds are calling themselves bird watchers again. But for me, the term watcher implies visual observations, and I'm as focused on listening as on watching birds. I’m also extremely fond of keeping those lists. This year I'm trying to see as many species as I can during my "Conservation Big Year," but even as I'm hoping against hope to get 600 this year, I’m finding that more than ever, when I'm on my own and not needing to race on with the group to get the next bird, I enjoy stopping to savor individual birds that I encounter.

 Black-capped Vireo

In the Wichita Mountains, I spent a whole day following just one Black-capped Vireo around. When I was in southeastern Oklahoma, I spent a couple of days exploring just one national wildlife refuge, going over the same loop four different times so I could see the same individual Kentucky Warblers, Summer Tanagers, and Eastern Phoebes over and over, getting to know their day-to-day routines. And whenever I saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher while I was on a road where it was safe to stop, I stopped.

 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tails don't usually fly away--maybe they've grown accustomed to people gawking at their beauty. When I stop, they often looked me right in the eye, but quickly went back to scrutinizing the ground for insects. It was lovely to see my first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher of the year, and to see my first each for my Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas year-lists, but those first-of-year birds were seen from interstate highways where I couldn't stop. The ones I most thoroughly enjoyed were the ones I could savor.

Tailless Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

One of the Scissor-tails I saw in Kansas was missing her entire tail. The feathers may have frozen to a fence during an ice storm, or may have been plucked in a close call with a predator. I felt sorry for her, but relieved to see just 30 feet or so further down on the power line another one, most assuredly her mate. They may have been a pair from last year, or they may have paired up before she lost her tail, or her mate may just not be that concerned about appearances--this was a mystery for me to ponder.

Spending time with individual birds that I've already seen hundreds of times turns out to be as lovely for me as getting new species. I ended up with hundreds of photos of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and memories to last a lifetime.

I'm hardly unique in the birding world for my savoring birds. But as I consider how neither the term "birder" or "bird watcher" is precise in identifying my approach, which includes amassing plenty of lists but also thoroughly enjoying the birds I watch and listen to, it strikes me that maybe we're ready for a new term. So from now on, I'm going to identify myself not primarily as a birder OR a bird watcher, but rather, a bird savorer.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mayday on May Day!

Spring 2013 isn’t halfway over, and already it’s one for the record books. We Northlanders will never forget the many snowfall records shattered already this month. I’m down in Oklahoma, and while snow was falling up north, the wind down here was as fierce and relentless as I’ve ever experienced. When I tried to get out of my car in the Wichita Mountains, I could not open the door against the powerful wind until I moved it to face the opposite direction. It was hard for me to walk, and during a 2-hour search of the refuge, I saw only a single bird in flight—one Red-winged Blackbird flew across the road against the wind. I felt locked in a surreal movie, the poor bird moving in literal slow motion. I stared in such amazement that I didn’t think to time it, but I bet it took at least 30 seconds to cross a two-lane road. Even the huge, hulking bison huddled on the ground on the lee side of rocky mounds or stands of trees. I naturally worried about all the other birds, especially the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, who weigh less than 1 ½ ounces but have so much surface area due to those long tails.

Team Sapsucker

On Wednesday, April 24, a team of 6 birders representing the Cornell Lab of Ornithology did a “Big Day” in Texas. The most birds ever seen in a single day on one of these Big Days was 264, seen by this very team in both 2011 and 2012. This year, perfect migration conditions from the Yucatan Peninsula sent literally millions of birds north, right as a cold front over Texas stopped them cold as they reached the shore. Photos of masses of birds went zooming through the Internet. So many birds were concentrated at High Island that the team demolished their own record by 30, tallying an amazing 294 species. This was cause for celebration of course—not only was it thrilling for the team to see so many birds in such a short period, but they were doing it to raise money for bird conservation projects at the Lab.

But for me the celebration was bittersweet—so many birds arriving to cold temperatures when they were exhausted and hungry meant many ended up dying. And many of the survivors made it up to Wisconsin and Minnesota just before our record snowstorms—again, weather will take a toll.

Weather of course has always taken a toll on birds and other wildlife. On March 13, 1904, over 750,000 dead Lapland Longspurs were tallied on two small lakes in Worthington, MN, following a heavy, wet snowfall during heavy migration, and it was estimated that millions died that night in southeastern MN and northeastern Iowa. Many birds wash ashore on the Great Lakes and ocean shorelines following extended foggy periods during migration, and that doesn’t count the drowned birds that are eaten by fish or gulls.

There isn’t anything we can do about the weather or its effects on wildlife other than long-term stuff that Al Gore has been begging us to do for lo these many years, and even without the climate change induced by our own shortsighted squandering of energy, there have always been bad weather events. But we can help those individual birds who gravitate to our own backyards. Setting out birdseed in reasonably sheltered areas of our yard is important. Black sunflower is the most nutritious for most birds. White millet scattered on the ground under some sheltering trees is valuable for the many Fox Sparrows, juncos, and other migrant sparrows passing through right now. Some early warblers have taken to visiting suet feeders right now. Setting out dishes of live mealworms will be appreciated by any insectivores who figure out such a novel source of food. And the first orioles and hummingbirds are starting to arrive not far south of us, so it’s not too early to set out grape jelly and sugar water. During cold weather, it’s okay to make the sugar water more concentrated—about 1/3 cup of sugar per cup of water. It may be a week or more before any hummers arrive, but just in case, I wouldn’t want the first ones passing through my yard to leave hungry.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler desperate for food in Spring 2004.